Oral History Feature is a series of articles drawn extensively from interviews with individuals who participated in or have personal knowledge about historic Pennsylvania events.

The world of iron production was a rough-and-tumble af­fair, a great contrast to the passive, sheltered world which historians and others often associate with Ameri­can women in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Yet women were a part of Joanna Furnace since its beginnings in 1792, when ironmasters Samuel Potts and Thomas Rutter paid Katy Cryley wages of seven shillings, six­pence. This Berks County industrial complex, consisting of tenant houses, a store, and a schoolhouse in addition to the furnace, housed wives and children as well as ironworkers. How did the working-class women of Joanna fit into the pattern of American life? Were they sequestered behind the scenes or were they active in the economic and social life of the community?

Surviving Joanna women, born and reared at the furnace between 1881 and 1925, remember a lifestyle which today seems filled with hardship and missed opportunity. Like their sisters through­out the United States, their lives centered around home, husband and children, and they received limited educational and job opportunities. In the church and community they remain­ed the handmaidens of men, unable to assume positions of leadership. Yet many speak of Joanna with warmth and humor, although as Ruth Sparr Kohl and Esther Sparr Machemer admitted, “looking back it does seem like a rough way of life.”

While growing up at the furnace in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, these girls had little time to question the role of women in society. Joanna parents introduced their offspring to work at an early age, whatever their sex or birth order within the family. As was the case throughout the United States, chores were often assigned according to sex, with girls generally performing household tasks such as cooking. cleaning and sewing. In large families, girls also cared for the younger children. Mrs. Kohl and Mrs. Machemer remembered that their oldest sister, Annie, “acted as the family baby­sitter” and even had permission to deal out corporal punishment. According to Mrs. Kohl, “This hurt more than when Mom spanked us herself.”

In families with shortages of boys, a daughter often helped with the chores usually assigned to a male. Ruth Kohl worked in the fields as a child because her brothers were either too young to help or were employed in full-time jobs. Laura Segner McCormick, the youngest of eight children, also worked on the family farm which bordered Joanna Furnace. As an adult, she continued to work alongside both her husband and father in the fields as the “third man.” Marie Kunz Weber, whose father. Frank, owned a mill in the vicinity of Joanna Furnace, worked in a predomin­ately man’s job in the 1890s.

I was the fourth girl in a family of eight children-five girls and three boys. The three boys came after me and Mama was so busy caring for three little boys, so, as soon as I could climb the stairs in the three-story mill, Papa took me to the mill every day with him, and as I grew older, he taught me to operate every machine in the mill. I kept the books for him and helped him get orders ready for each day, sacked our flour, and worked in the mill until I married. November 25, 1920.

In the lace nineteenth and early twen­tieth centuries, women rarely attended high school or college. Most Joanna girls were typical in that they still received only an elementary education, post­-eighth grade education being an unaf­fordable luxury. They began attending Joanna Furnace School at age six or seven and studied courses similar to those of other one-room schools. According to Linda Hoyer Updike, a farm child who attended the nearby fur­nace school, “we studied geography, history, physiology, arithmetic, spelling and, of course, reading. Drawing was a rare treat – a prize on Friday afternoon for a week of good behavior.”

Between household chores and school, furnace girls had little time to amuse themselves. Still, Ethel Sparr Zynn remembered isolated moments of enjoy­ment: ”Whenever l had the time l would run off to the orchard and sit on the swing and sing. All the Sparr children liked to sing.”

Although the girls of Joanna had few toys, “children back then made their own fun” by playing ball games, tag, and hide-and-seek, according to Lena Eshelman Kurtz, daughter of the Joanna schoolmaster. Laura McCormick and her brothers even built a see-saw and merry-go-round, which gave them great pleasure. In the summer they fished and swam in Hay Creek, and in the winter they skated on the dam. Esther Kline McElroy, who lived near the furnace, remembered that families sometimes relaxed by popping corn and singing. Unlike city children, whom many historians believe were sex-segregated in their amusements, Joanna children nor­mally played with siblings and neighbors of both sexes.

As Joanna girls grew to adulthood they added to the family income by “hiring out,” a common practice in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Instead of moving to cities and seeking work in the factories, as many young women of that era in fact did, most of the furnace girls worked as maids, at least during their youth. Although the work was hard and the pay low by modern standards, Ruth Kohl and Esther Machemer said, “We were glad for any work we could get.” The girls who hired out usually had spending money, even though their parents could collect a portion of their wages until they were eighteen. As Esther Machemer ex­plained, “When l worked I could buy my own clothes. If I had been at home Mom would have made them, and may­be they wouldn’t have been what I wanted.”

Five of the women interviewed work­ed for families who owned farms close to the furnace. Esther Machemer hired out in the summer of 1910 to a farmer, who also ran a boarding house, and worked twelve to thirteen hours a day for two dollars a week plus room and board. She enjoyed having a bedroom all to herself, but said, “The work was too hard for a girl of nine.” Her younger sisters hired out as well. Ethel worked as a house­keeper, while Ruth occasionally did farm work, earning seventy-five cents a day, “the same wage as a man.” Fur­nace women Clara McCormick Segner and Elizabeth Strock Moore also work­ed as maids for farm families during their youth.

The ironmaster, L. Heber Smith, also employed furnace women to work in the Joanna mansion, which his family used as a summer home in the early twentieth century. Clara Segner, the orphaned daughter of the Smith family’s gardener and chauffeur, worked for the iron­master for one summer around the year 1901. She worked as the table waitress, also helping occasionally in the kitchen and washing dishes. Mrs. Segner could not remember what Mr. Smith paid her because she gave all her wages to her mother, but she felt that her summer at the Smiths had been a fairly good one.

Esther Machemer, who worked as a maid in the Joanna mansion during the summer of 1914, also liked her job.

At Smith’s it was like Christmas to me. Everyone got along well. With the other servants I was just one of the girls. I got two dollars a week plus three meals a day. When there was a piece of left­over pie at dinner the other girls always said, “Oh, let Esther have it.”

Although many American women held jobs at some point in their lives, few entered the business or professional world. This was true at Joanna as well. As Esther Machemer recalled, “The only businesswomen I’d ever heard of were madams, and there were none of those around the furnace.” Esther McElroy could recall only one business­woman, Mrs. Ida Faustnaucht, who worked as a dressmaker.

Although many American women held jobs at some point in their lives, few entered the business or professional world. This was true at Joanna as well. As Esther Machemer recalled, “The only businesswomen I’d ever heard of were madams, and there were none of those around the furnace.” Esther McElroy could recall only one business­woman, Mrs. Ida Faustnaucht, who worked as a dressmaker.

Several Joanna women were able, however, to attend college and become teachers, one of the few career oppor­tunities open to them in the late nine­teenth and early twentieth centuries. These women entered the teaching pro­fession for various reasons. After attending Pierce Business School for six months, Marie Weber became a teacher because “I liked children and enjoyed helping them to learn and progress.” A shortage of teachers helped Elizabeth Moore fulfill her dream of a college education. After attending West Chester Normal School for one summer in 1921, she garnered enough credits to obtain a teaching certificate and earn money for the next summer’s tuition. Although state law required that teachers be at least eighteen years of age, Mrs. Moore lied about her age and was hired at six­teen. At her first school she taught “six­teen rowdy children,” the oldest student being a girl of fifteen.

In addition to teaching eight grades in one room, the teachers interviewed had many other responsibilities. Marie Weber, who taught for twelve years, described her first year in the schoolhouse, a year which most students of early twentieth century education would probably judge to be typical:

My first year was at the Knee Hole School, two and one-half miles from my home and I walked back and forth; [I] was my own janitor, bur the children often helped me sweep, wash blackboards, etc. I had about twenty­-five pupils, all eight grades in one room, and I got forty dollars a month for a seven-month term.

Whether maids or teachers, most of these young women hoped to have families and homes of their own. According to Ruth Kohl and Esther Machemer, girls worried about becom­ing spinsters, feeling that “marriage was the natural way. Old maids were pitied and people thought they couldn’t get a man when sometimes they just wanted to be independent.” This was a common attitude in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a period during which approximately sixty percent of American women were married.

Courting at Joanna was a relatively simple affair in which girls entertained their suitors in the family parlor. Without the means of modern transportation, young men either walked or drove a horse and buggy to the home of their sweethearts. Community activities also provided young people with the op­portunities to meet someone of the op­posite sex. Clara Segner recalled that courting often took place during the evening debates and box socials at the local school. Esther McElroy remem­bered the annual church picnics where “of course a great deal of courting went on.” In the summer, according to Ethel Zynn, a group of Joanna girls sometimes walked to dances and church festivals in Morgantown. Often, boys would later escort them home.

Engagements usually lasted only a few months and wedding ceremonies were simple. Most couples married in the minister’s home since, as Esther Machemer recalled, “only the rich could afford fancy weddings …. I never went to a big wedding until after I was mar­ried.” Ivan Sparr could not remember any Joanna couples taking a wedding trip either, because of the expense.

The courtship of Elizabeth Strock of Joanna and Paul Moore of Plowville seems typical of most of the working­-class couples of this community. They met at a Literary Society Meeting at Morgantown Methodist Church in 1924, became engaged in March 1925, and married that August in the minister’s home. That night, as was the custom, they were “serenaded” by Paul’s friends. Since this custom involved good-natured teasing, newlyweds often tried to keep their whereabouts a secret.

In her book, Womanhood in America, Mary P. Ryan wrote that native-born American women bore an average of five children each in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In Joanna, live to eight children ap­peared to be the norm for most women. Clara Segner said that John and Elizabeth Sparr “set the record” with twelve children, spaced about two and one-half years apart. Ivan Sparr, the couple’s sixth child, remembered that “Whenever the doctor came we ex­pected a new brother or sister. We thought he brought the babies in his black bag.”

No matter how many children they bore, the wives and mothers of Joanna assumed the total burden of household responsibilities, their husbands being constantly busy at the furnace. One of Elizabeth Sparr’s younger sons, Thomas, remembered that “My mother was always busy.”

She had to carry all the water she used and the spring was twenty-five yards below the house. Until some of the kids were old enough to help her, she had this chore all to herself Mealtimes were never regular because Pop sometimes didn’t get home until nine or ten at night and then he wanted a hot meal.

The other Sparr children shared Tom’s recollections of their mother. Elizabeth’s daughter, Ethel, remem­bered that “She was a fussy house­keeper. Her house and children were always clean.” Her son, Ivan, told of his mother’s garden, pigs and chickens, which supplied most of the family food. Two other daughters said that in an age when housewives had many children and no modern conveniences, Elizabeth Sparr “did the best she could.”

Other women shared similar ex­periences. Emma Strock, wife of teamster Charles Strock, assumed the responsibilities of cooking, cleaning and doing laundry for a family of ten. Ac­cording to her children, Emma also managed the family’s thirty-acre farm while Charles worked at the furnace.

Although some American women were able to join Women’s Clubs, the PTA or the WCTU (Women’s Christian Temperance Union), lack of leisure time and transportation prevented Joanna women from participating in many social and community activities. Accor­ding to Linda Updike, many people felt that attending such meetings was a form of recreation and as a result was sinful, because it demonstrated that they had too much free time in which to enjoy themselves. Yet the furnace women did manage, as they had as children, to snatch occasional moments of leisure. Mrs. Updike said that women enjoyed visiting and gossip, for when one was confined to the house all day, “The glimpse of another human being was entertainment.”

Church was the major social activity. Most furnace people attended Plowville Union Church or Harmony Methodist Church, which were within walking distance of their homes, and many women were involved in church activi­ties. Both Lena Kurtz and Esther Machemer sang in the choir at Plowville Church, and Mrs. Kurtz also taught Sunday School for several years. During the summer, a woman could extend her religious involvement by attending the Joanna Camp Meeting. During the month of August, the Schuylkill Valley Ministerial Association held worship ser­vices at the camp, as well as programs on missionaries, temperance and reform work. Sarah Adella Kurtz Plank, daughter of miller Frank Kunz, remem­bered that, “My mother rented a tent at Joanna Camp Meeting every summer. The singing and preaching we1e very good.”

Funerals were also social occasions, since the women of the bereaved family always served a lunch after the burial and often asked friends to help with preparations. Ivan Sparr recalled that raisin pie was usually served and was nicknamed “funeral pie because it was cheap and always available,” Paying one’s respects to the deceased was sometimes a secondary consideration for Joanna mourners. Lena Kurtz mention­ed that “It was sort of a joke in our family that some people went to every funeral just to get a free lunch.”

Like their counterparts throughout the United States between 1881 and 1925, Joanna Furnace women primarily assumed the roles of wives and mother. Their educational and job opportunities were limited by the customs of their era and the isolation of their community. They kept house with no modern conve­niences, raised children and ran farms almost single-handedly, while having few chances for recreation. Despite the fact that furnace women for the most part performed traditional women’s duties, they were not passive figures. Although they may not have been essential to the production of iron, as wives, mothers, maids and teachers, they nevertheless played crucial roles at Joanna.


Susan R. Leighow is a former Berks County resident and teacher. She receiv­ed a B.S. in education from Bloomsburg State College, an M.A. in history from Kutztown State College and is currently working on a Ph.D. in U.S. labor history at the University of Pittsburgh. This article was adapted from her Master’s thesis on Joanna Furnace.


Ron Schlegel, the illustrator for this piece, is a senior high school art teacher and a freelance graphic designer who is closely involved with the research and reconstruction of historic Joanna Fur­nace. The artist is one of the organizers of the Spectra Group of freelance graphic designers.